All images used with the permission of the Edmonton Public School Board.
Alberta’s Ministry of Education is performing a sweeping rewrite of the province’s public school curriculums, and they’ve invited corporations to suggest what they should teach. For their redesign of kindergarten to grade 12, the Ministry’s list of key education stakeholders includes oil sands operators, tech giants, and textbook publishers. Proponents of corporate involvement, like Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson, say this initiative will benefit children and prepare them for the workforce. Parents, teachers, environmentalists, and opposing politicians have argued that Alberta is offering corporations free subliminal advertising, for a captive audience of children.
Although corporations stand to benefit from this arrangement, they aren’t actually the driving force behind it. This initiative originated with Alberta Education and has been promoted in government by Minister Jeff Johnson under the leadership of Alberta’s recently-resigned Premier Alison Redford. Participating school boards are approaching the CEOs and presidents of large corporations like Cenovus, Syncrude, Suncor, Apple, CISCO, and Microsoft for curriculum advice, though some have not yet accepted the offer. This is a non-monetary arrangement where influence is awarded for free.
Corporate input is part of a curriculum overhaul that is costing the province $55 million per year. Parents have become suspicious that lobbying from education companies could explain the rapid and all-encompassing curriculum rewrite, which comes at a time when the quality of Alberta’s public schools are declining, and money is needed to alleviate overcrowding. This debate has been extensively covered by David Staples of the Edmonton Journal, who poses the question: “Could the Alberta Education Industry be driving radical change, partly to justify its own existence?”
Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies, a family physician and mother of three, seems to thinks so. After recent changes in the math curriculum caused a sharp decline in grades, Dr. Tran-Davies started a petition that gained over 10,000 names to have the previous math program reinstated. She was surprised that the government responded with inaction, and believes they are listening to “other stakeholders… who take precedent over the children.” She thinks Alberta Education followed the advice of “textbook publishers and new math consulting gurus, who are paid tens of thousands of dollars to go around and advocate for the new approaches,” though a representative of the Edmonton School Board denied this. Minister Johnson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“The fact that Syncrude and Suncor, corporations and industries, are now connected to curriculum design—it only affirms that there are complexities to the making of a curriculum, which are not in the best interest of our children,” she said. “My concern is that education should be independent. It shouldn’t be guided by industries and according to what they want the children to be moulded as.”
Prior to leading Alberta Education, Jeff Johnson worked as the Minister responsible for the Oil Sands Secretariat and helped build public infrastructure to service tar sands projects. He has no experience in teaching or education, unless you count coaching hockey.
Prime Minister Harper at Kensington Elementary School, in Edmonton.
With thousands of parents signing petitions against corporate influence in the classroom, Minister Johnson and the Edmonton Public School Board have offered assurances that corporations can help students achieve their creative and academic potential. In an open letter, for instance, the Minister wrote: “The modern economy demands creativity and problem solving, the application of critical thinking and an ability to collaborate and communicate. These skills lie at the heart of Alberta's curriculum redesign process.”
The Minister has also said that corporations can help get kids excited about math and science, but parents and political opponents told me they are skeptical of this reasoning. “The skills that are expected—the problem solving, the critical thinking skills, collaboration, being creative—all those are things that we require of our children today. There’s not anything new that they are speaking of,” said Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies.
— Deron Bilous (@DeronBilous) March 13, 2014
— Jeff Johnson (@JeffJohnsonMLA) March 13, 2014
— Deron Bilous (@DeronBilous) March 13, 2014
@DeronBilous Socialists like the NDP may loathe the private sector but we recognize the need to develop skills demanded by employers.
— Jeff Johnson (@JeffJohnsonMLA) March 13, 2014
— Jonathan Sharek (@jsharek) March 14, 2014
However, it is Minister Johnson’s suggestion that the curriculum should be redesigned according to what “the modern economy demands” that requires the most scrutiny, especially at a time when Alberta’s economy is driven by an oil boom. The Harper Government expects that by 2030 the oil sands will have tripled in size, though indigenous rights and legal challenges or the direct interventions of environmentalists could hinder or halt this rapid expansion. Graduates of the new curriculum will leave schools in 2030, just in time to join this hypothetical economy.
“I’m just concerned that in Alberta our industry is oil and gas, and if we’re going out into the future, you should not dovetail everybody into that industry because that isn’t the future. Fifty years out, that is not our future. Why would we pigeonhole all these children into this one industry?” Wanda Laurin, a teacher from the Peace River area, asked.
Five oil sands companies and zero environmental agencies, with the pseudo-exception of Alberta Parks, have been invited to give curriculum input. Defending these invitations on the legislature floor, the Minister offered a contradictory statement: “This isn’t about oil and gas, this is about being relevant. It’s about the economy. It’s about entrepreneurialism. It’s about making sure that our kids have the skills coming out of it to be employable. And there’s nothing wrong with working, or working for oil and gas. We can’t all work for Greenpeace.”
“I’m concerned about corporations infiltrating our education system, dictating what is taught, how students are taught,” said Deron Bilous, the NDP’s education critic. “What is the purpose of our education system?” he asked. “Is it to give students a well-rounded education, to teach them how to think critically, and to prepare them to go into any field down the road? Or is it to start training them to be a worker for Corporation X, and start them in kindergarten so that by grade 12 they’ll be a great worker for the rest of their life?”
“Part of the future is what we do to create the future. So if you’re only teaching people how to do one task, and not teaching them how to think critically and innovate, then I think we’re actually hampering ourselves,” Bilous clarified.
In defence of the program, a spokesperson for Edmonton’s Public Schools, Jane Sterling, assured me that corporations are “just going to be giving us some input. They’re not going to be building the curriculum at all.” The curriculum itself will be written by just under a hundred teachers following a broader consultation process that Jeff Johnson wrote: “is being led by parents, employers, teachers, students and school authorities, all of whom will be working together.” These public assurances also stress that First Nations and representatives of Treaties 6, 7, and 8, which largely protect First Nations land rights, will be asked for curriculum advice.
Yet parents and teachers alike told me that they have been excluded from the curriculum design process. This is supported by the head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, who said in a recent statement that: “the consultation process is not where we’d like to see it.” Corporate involvement, one teacher told me, was kept “under the table until it was exposed. And I think that’s important to note—that it was exposed.”
“There’s arguments over how much influence [industry] would have, but I think that’s not the point. I think the fact that there’s even an opportunity for this is alarming,” said Dustin Blumhagen, a teacher with two kids in public school. He has many unanswered questions, like if schools are“going to get courses designed to only work on Macs? How far is this going to go once they get their foot in the door? And there’s specific companies—why is CISCO on there, why is someone else not on there? Why are textbook companies at all involved?”
As Blumhagen’s questions show, the worst fears of parents and teachers are still speculative. The finished curriculum is years away, so it is unclear how corporate input will actually impact students and if there will be positive or negative outcomes. Will Apple, for instance, advocate for teaching children how to program computers, or will they just try to sell schools and students their own products?
Ultimately, the NDP’s Deron Bilous argues, companies will do whatever makes them the most money. “[Corporations] are legislated or governed or obligated to act in the best interest of their shareholders. When they go out and do something nice, maybe donate or want to participate in something, it still has to go toward the bottom line of profits.”
Bilous clarified that he is pro oil-sands, though he doesn’t think corporations should be allowed to directly influence the curriculum. He told me that the coal lobby in the US attempted to write a curriculum unit for grades 4 and 5, and the unit was rejected because it “was completely biased, only spoke of the benefits of using coal, ignored any of the environmental consequences or harmful or negative effects whatsoever.”
This fossil-fuelled rewrite of reality is the greatest fear of the parents and educators that I spoke to.
“When I was going to school, and that was very long ago, we talked about greenhouse gasses and non-renewable resources and we looked at them very clearly as coming to an end,” Wanda Laurin said. “It was really clear to the children coming out of schools, or in schools in Alberta, that we had non-renewable resources that were creating greenhouse gasses—it was all very scientific. I am worried that the science is going to take a hit, because science is not on the side of fossil fuels. This is anthropogenic climate change, I mean, it’s brought on by mass activity. Are they going to deal with that? I highly suspect that they would like to shove that under a rug somewhere.”
One of the corporations that Alberta Education has invited into classrooms, Syncrude, owns two of the world’s three largest dams and uses them to hold back the enormous and poisonous tailings ponds that it has created, which leak millions of litres of toxins per day into the Athabasca watershed. The youth of Alberta will be left with the herculean tasks of surviving runaway climate change and cleaning up this toxic mess, along with the other catastrophic by-products of bitumen extraction—like the 7,300 square mile ring of mercury that surrounds the oil sands. This is, inarguably, a part of Alberta’s future.
What remains to be seen is whether or not students will be given the tools to deal with this new reality, or even to recognize it. Envisioning a world of continuous oil sands growth, Minister Johnson’s letter concludes: “At the end of the day we must ask ourselves, are we preparing our children for their future or for our past?”